January 28, 2016
Cabaret is essentially an intimate art, whether the audience can reach out and touch you or sits further back at a somewhat larger club. Let’s assume you can see at least part of those present. Musical theater performers (there are now many who have joined the ranks) often make the mistake of singing over our heads. This is not successful cabaret. Unless a lyric signifies internal dialogue or you’re directing sentiments to someone ostensibly present, you’re depriving us of connection.
Look into the eyes of those you can see; focus, share. Make us briefly believe we’re chosen, that a lyric is meaningful to you, to us. There will be more than a few receptive faces—find them. An inexperienced vocalist may be frightened by exposure or fear loss of concentration. A veteran will likely be nourished. Practice.
Watch the experts, those who can physically touch someone, ad lib an observation, elicit participation— clapping or joining in—without missing a beat. (If you force this, it will be both ignored and recalled negatively. Learn to sense the tenor of an evening.) I’ve attended shows where we’re so in sympathy, this is accomplished with a gesture or single word of encouragement. If you inhabit the lyric, zeroing in on even a few people, the entire room will lean forward.
Ah, inhabiting a lyric. Another part of intimacy. A good cabaret artist is part actor. For God’s sake, don’t choose material unless you can relate to it. It’s not necessary to have experienced abandonment, the excitement of first love, deep poverty, or café society to understand what a verse and chorus expresses. If it’s a period song, learn something about the era, about the environment in which it was fostered. Should it be a number from a musical, except if a song is employed to illuminate a different story, imbue it with the emotional context experienced by that character. You couldn’t have a better blueprint.
Technically beautiful vocals are just that, nothing more. I’ve heard many with such a disconnect to meaning, one wonders whether the performer speaks English. Volume, for example, is not synonymous with intensity. Yes, you can impress those with less discerning taste, those who applaud a marquee name or mere flash, but you’re doing a disservice to both the art and your own professional longevity. If you don’t move your public, you’ll lose them sooner than later.
Watching an audience catch its collective breath, laugh, sway, tap its feet, or reach for companions is simply wonderful. Nor are journalists immune. Be memorable.